For Jerrod Penn, the economics is about more than just numbers.
An environment and natural resources economist in the LSU College of Agriculture, Penn uses the principles of economics to better understand human nature and what society values.
This means Penn often begins with face-to-face surveys because the data he needs do not exist.
“I’m the most micro of microeconomists,” Penn says from his office at Martin D. Woodin Hall on the LSU campus.
Penn joined the economics faculty in January after finishing his doctoral work at the University of Kentucky. There he became nationally known for research that established the financial effects bedbug reports on lodging websites have on hotels and other aspects of the hospitality industry. He and his research partners also found that most consumers couldn’t identify a bedbug.
There was little information any researchers or organizations were willing to share, so Penn and his two co-researchers got their own data through online surveys.
“Bedbugs are a huge problem to the hospitality industry,” Penn says. “It’s kind of a taboo topic.”
The study’s findings drew attention from the New York Times, Consumer Reports and the Scientific American podcast, earning Penn notoriety in an understudied field.
Penn grew up in St. Cloud, Florida, and began studying business economics at the University of Florida, and he told his adviser he was interested in the economics of recreation, natural resources and the environment. “We don’t do that,” the adviser said before directing Penn toward agricultural economics.
In agricultural economics, Penn learned that he can ask people questions, such as how much they would pay to support bald eagle conservation. From that survey, he could assign an estimate to how much society values bald eagles.
“I thought that was magic,” Penn says. “We can ask yes-or-no-style questions and come up with dollar signs for how people value things.”
Since moving to Baton Rouge, Penn has been surveying users of East Baton Rouge Parish parks on what they know about honeybees and native pollinators, such as bumblebees, moths and wasps.
“How do they differentiate their value between native pollinators versus honeybees,” Penn says. “Do they differentiate between those things? Can we do some outreach and education after the fact?”
The survey also gives Penn a chance to work with his wife, Hannah Penn, an entomologist and postdoctoral researcher studying honeybees in the LSU Department of Entomology. Married since 2012, their interests have intertwined before.
“We are more than the sum of our parts when we work together,” Jerrod Penn says.
Outside of economics, Penn is fascinated by bees and insects and loves hiking and exploring national parks.
In the College of Agriculture, Penn teaches an undergraduate environmental resources class. He has experience in ocean and coastal economics and water quality, and he expects to expand into those fields while in Louisiana.
He relishes the opportunity to figure out what the individual or consumer thinks.
“I feel like a translator,” he says. “I translate basically scientific work into an economically meaningful or relevant number to the rest of society — or vice-versa. I can say, if this is how society perceives things — given this information as to what society’s values are, how does this inform the relevance of research you are doing?”
This kind of translation, Penn says, could be key to understanding the path to real progress.
Kyle Peveto is assistant communications specialist with Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the summer 2018 edition of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Jerrod Penn, environment and natural resources economist, LSU College of Agriculture. Photo by Craig Gautreaux
Penn enjoys hiking in national parks. This photo is from a recent visit to the Grand Canyon.